The Quiet Struggle: Shame and Pride

Many thanks to Kai Turi for the translation of this Norwegian documentary episode. Watch and read along.

“Here live the Sami. We are alive and kicking!”

But it has taken many years to get here. The Sami are connected with the somewhat murky, ugly and shameful. Sami children were sent to boarding schools to be Norwegian.

Boarding schools were in many ways child abuse in the public sector.

Sami people have waged a silent battle, but not without resistance.

“It was pretty awful to find out maybe we were Sami, we just had negative opinions about the Sami when we were growing up. It was not a nice thing. I was embarrassed and did not want to know. I wish that I had received this information earlier. It took a long time before I dared to figure this out.”

Susann grew up here in Manndalen in a regular, Norwegian family. But one day she got a lesson at school that would change her life.

“All students in the class wrote down the name of the farmstead they came from. Then we saw that 90% of all the names we had written, were Sami…Up there you Ordamielli. Over there you have Rouhtu. Down there you have Ribet, Suddasluohka, Gáiskeriidi…Most places in the village had a Sami name. And it had to mean something. I was curious and began to find out more.”

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Solidarity with Gállok

IMG_9997KallokOn August 12th, several of us gathered at the Swedish Club in Seattle for dinner and a photoshoot to demonstrate solidarity with Kamp Kallak, the group protesting the mining project in northern Sweden. Kallak is the Swedish word for the area; in Sámi it is Gállok. The mine site is near Jokkmokk, famous for its annual wintermarket, a 400+-year old tradition that has a special place in my heart, as my eighth great-grandfather Igor Ivanoff (1620-1680) is said to have traded at the first market.

Our special guest from Jokkmokk was May-Britt Öhman, resplendent in her Lule Sámi gakti at left. A dam safety researcher, May-Britt was in Seattle for a conference and gave us the nitty-gritty on the situation in Gállok, particularly the risk to the Lule River dams and water safety in the entire watershed. She encouraged our advocacy. Later we dined at a seafood restaurant on the waterfront, pounding tiny crustaceans with tiny hammers, feeling far away from the barricades yet nonetheless, united in passion.

Please sign the STOP MINING IN JOKKMOKK petition here.

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No Dead Ends: Labyrinths in Sápmi & Elsewhere

IMG_6156I’m taking a fascinating free, online class through the University of Toronto called Aboriginal Worldviews and Education. One of our first assignments was to write about a “meaningful place.” It was hard to settle on one, as there are so many within shouting distance, but I decided to write about a remote stone labyrinth where (in which?) I have walked in contemplation and more recently, in grief. The labyrinth is located on an island north of Seattle, a place that I came to know through two friends who lived there, a married couple who became, over the years, like surrogate parents (he shared my Finnish and Sámi heritage, she my passion for books and lost causes). Last year they passed away within a few months of each other, and were buried in the cemetery near the labyrinth, behind a storybook white-steepled church.

When I visit, I park my bike near the church and walk through the woods to the labyrinth under a canopy of Douglas fir and maple trees.  In the distance there is the sound of the surf, and rain or shine, you can smell the salty air. It’s a beautiful place.

The tradition I learned on the island was to bring a pebble to leave in the middle of the labyrinth. For the bereaved, or at least for me, this is a helpful ritual of laying down one’s burden of grief before returning to the everyday.

Unlike a maze, the circles of a labyrinth contain only one path, with no dead ends. The way in is the way out, and the simple act of concentrating on your next step is calming. I prefer to walk alone, although walking with others requires you to synchronize your pace, so that no one is lingering or rushing, and that too is meditative.

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Your Help Needed for Grad School Project

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Friends of Sámi heritage, can you help an American student with her project?

Kjirsten Winters is a Norwegian-American graduate student in occupational therapy at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington. She is seeking help with a project exploring the racism and marginalization the Sámi have suffered under colonialism in Scandinavia. As this prejudice is often difficult for Americans to see, much less understand, it has much to teach us about how we perceive race.

As the result of her research, Kjirsten is creating a handmade book that includes photos, illustrations, and narrative. The book will not be published, but Kjirsten is willing to make color copies for interested contributors.

Her timeline is short, with submissions due by Friday, December 7th.

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Retracing Roots: Generational Shame

Melissa Lantto has a compelling post over at Retracing Roots about perceiving some self-destructive behaviors (such as alcoholism) within her adopted Sami community, and tying them to the indigenous experience of assimilation.

This comes close to home for me, having discovered that within the same family line (from Swedish Lapland), I am the descendant of both whiskey merchants and Laestadian clergy. Laestadius was the 19th century half-Sami religious leader who demanded complete temperance from his followers, and is alternately credited for preserving Sami culture and criticized for burying it under a severe, fundamentalist doctrine.

Sami or not, we are each of us descended from the colonizer and the colonized. Does our heritage inform our current choices? Can we reconcile competing narratives? What stories do we share with our children? In what culture do we located our “pride”?

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Penny’s Story

Samuel Balto, 1898 in a photo by Čáliid Lágádus via Norske Polarhistorie

It has been over 30 years that I learned about the “family secret” of my Sami heritage.

In about 1978, my mother’s cousin, May, called to ask for photos, since she was making a trip to Karasjok. Married to a Japanese-American over family protests, I answered that I didn’t think they would be interested, since my mother had always said that my grandparents would have been upset over this marriage.

“There are some things you don’t know about yourself . . . “

May responded “Well, there are some things you don’t know about yourself,” and proceeded with the story of the Sámi who came to the United States in 1898, hired to teach the Alaskan Eskimos reindeer husbandry. In that group were my great-grandparents, Anders and Marit Balto, their daughter, my Aunt Mary, and great-uncle, Sam Balto, foreman of the Sámi group. Well I thought this was exciting and exotic, especially after being a “European mutt” amongst a wonderful Japanese family of Samurai heritage.

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